“Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” James Michener
1998 – Livermore, California: The letter from NASA was waiting for Jose when he got home from work. He hesitated before opening it and took a deep breath. Was it finally good news? “Open it, Jose,” his wife, Adela, encouraged him. He read, “Dear Mr. Hernandez, we regret to inform you that your application…”
Jose and Adela hugged. She cried. It was the sixth time Jose had been turned down for the NASA space program. He wadded up the letter and threw it on the bedroom floor. He was done applying to be an astronaut. Adela tried to motivate him, “No, Jose, let NASA disqualify you. Don’t disqualify yourself. I know you can do it.”
In 1972, 10-year-old Jose Hernandez and his parents watched on their small black and white TV as Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan walked on the moon. Jose was mesmerized by what Cernan had done. That night, he slipped outside the family travel trailer and stared at a full moon. Apollo 17 was the final moon mission and the beginning of a big dream for a small boy with plenty of obstacles.
Growing up the son of migrant farm workers from Mexico, Jose spent nine months each year helping pick vegetables and fruit crops across southern California before returning to Mexico for the winter. While others looked forward to summer vacation, Jose hated it. Summer vacation meant working seven days a week in the fields.
Jose’s father, Salvador, had just three years of formal schooling, but he always wanted more for his children. He frequently reminded them that without an education, migrant farm work would be their future.
Initially, Jose and his three siblings picked crops during the day and were homeschooled at night. Later, when the family settled in Stockton, California, the children attended school. Although the family had little money, Jose’s parents gave him something money couldn’t buy: They believed in his dream to be an astronaut.
In 1980, 18-year-old Jose, then a senior at Franklin High School in Stockton, was hoeing sugar beets when he heard on his transistor radio that Puerto Rican Franklin Chang-Diaz was selected as the first Latino for the space program. His dream got a shot in the arm. Jose was encouraged that Chang-Diaz came from a similar background. “If he can, he told his parents, “Why can’t I?”
Jose received a full scholarship to the University of the Pacific. In 1988, he graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering. Two years later, he earned his master’s in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Jose took a research engineer job with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, California. On his first day at work, the receptionist asked him to change a light bulb. He informed her that he was the new engineer, not the janitor. Later, Jose worked on the team that created the first digital mammography imaging machine.
After the sixth rejection from NASA, and despite the overwhelming odds, Jose became even more determined to make the astronaut training program. Each year 12,000 people apply for 15 astronaut positions. He learned that most astronauts were pilots, so he got his pilot’s license. In 2001, Jose left Lawrence Labs and joined NASA as a materials research engineer at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, hoping it would enhance his chances of being selected. He received a ninth rejection letter from the space program.
Jose was promoted to NASA’s Materials and Processes Branch Chief a year later. Finally, in 2004, after having applied to NASA’s astronaut-training program 11 times, 41-year-old Jose Hernandez was accepted to the program, a decade older than when most candidates are selected.
On August 28, 2009, Salvador and Julia Hernandez proudly watched as their son blasted off from Cape Kennedy on the shuttle Discovery as part of NASA Mission STS-128 to the International Space Station. The shuttle flight made history by being the first to carry two Latinos, Jose and his hero Franklin Chang-Diaz, into space. The two spent two weeks at the space station as mission specialists responsible for robotic operations.
Jose Hernandez’s incredible journey took him from the beet fields of southern California to the International Space Station 250 miles above the Earth. Nobody would have faulted Jose for giving up, but he did not quit. He is one of only 500 people who have been in space.
Never Lose Heart – Ordinary People Who Refused to Quit @ Amazon